Archive for the ‘autism awareness’ Tag

The Train to Belonging   8 comments

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(The following true story is based upon the lives and recollections of some people I know extremely well. Their names have been changed to maintain a standard of confidentiality.)

It’s never too late in life for dreams to come true if you refuse to give up on them.  A remarkable man named Jacob is living proof of this.

Jacob was born to parents who did their best but weren’t equipped to raise a child with special needs.  Consequently, he was taken from them at a young age and placed into foster care.  Jacob didn’t feel physically or emotionally safe with his foster parents but, nevertheless, spent years in their home and came to think of them as family.  The foster parents thought of him the same way and intended to adopt him— until one afternoon when Jacob’s foster mother called him at summer camp to inform him they’d changed their minds.  Jacob never returned to the place he’d come to know as home, instead spending the next several years in state schools and psychiatric hospitals.  Sadly, Jacob actually felt safer at the state schools and hospitals than he had in his previous living situations but longed for a family to call his own.

When Jacob turned 22, he moved into a group residence with three other individuals.  Similarly to the hospitals and state schools, he loved a lot of the staff who worked with him, but didn’t feel comfortable around the other individuals, one of whom targeted him for teasing.  Jacob was a sensitive man and the teasing shook him to his core.  Although he could speak and write, he began to express his feelings over being teased and what he’d endured in the past by banging his head against hard surfaces and punching himself under his chin, actions certain to get a reaction.  Even though nobody at the house or his new day program physically harmed Jacob, the head banging was also a preemptive strike: He reasoned nobody would hit him if he hit himself first. Soon, the scars and marks on his forehead and chin rivaled those from the belt marks on his hips and backside from the years prior to his hospitalization.

Jacob made another preemptive decision. This time, it was to start wearing a hockey helmet to protect himself from himself.  Most of the people who worked directly with him felt this decision wise, as Jacob was keeping himself safe.  A few others not directly responsible for his wellbeing felt differently, believing the hockey helmet and chin strap made him look weird.  Some of the dissenters would state their opinion to Jacob.  Being criticized for wearing a helmet was devastating to Jacob, as the feelings it evoked went well beyond the sting of being labeled weird-looking.  To add to his sense of security, he also began to keep a ball of fuzz between his fingers and stack of folders under his arms at all times. These things, along with the helmet, represented armor to Jacob.

As the years passed, Jacob made great strides.  He’d become a favorite of many people who

worked with him, including Shane, his new day program director. Jacob and Shane weren’t that far apart in age and shared similar musical tastes.  They hit it off so well that Jacob essentially took over Shane’s office to use the computer and hangout.  Shane’s wife Jess also took an instant liking to Jacob one day while visiting.  Shane and Jess, who’d just bought a new house, discussed the possibilities of bringing Jacob into their home.

Shane and Jess invited Jacob over for Thanksgiving. It was the first time he’d been to anyone’s house for a holiday in years.  Everyone present was instructed by Shane not to mention Jacob’s helmet or how Jacob tested it before sitting down by gently banging his head off the table and lightly punching his chin.  Not surprisingly, Jacob charmed members of Shane and Jess’s family too, especially as he ate the McDonalds food he’d insisted upon over the standard turkey dinner…before proceeding to eat turkey as well.

Jacob had a good time on Thanksgiving but seeing a big family together brought back a flood of memories.  He began to have more trouble keeping himself under control at his day program and residence.  His struggles also manifested themselves in his armor, as fuzz balls grew larger, stacks of folders higher, and his helmet and chin strap tighter.

It was clear to Shane that everyone working with Jacob meant well but a lot of the approaches being used to help change some of his behavior weren’t the right ones.  One day, Shane walked into his boss’s office and told her he was quitting his job as day program director and wanted to provide shared living for Jacob.  The boss wasn’t sure it was a good idea but, to her credit, didn’t shoot it down completely.  Jacob’s guardian stood in agreement with Shane that taking Jacob in was a risk worth taking.

Others at the agency were understandably concerned the move would be a disaster but felt something needed to be tried to help Jacob and took a chance.  Their courage paid off quickly, as Jacob began to calm with the streamlined behavioral interventions and lessened stimulus of living with and competing for attention with other individuals.   Soon, Jacob was doing things he’d never done before, such as taking vacations, working, and attending rock concerts.  Holidays were spent with family instead of alone in his room while the fuzz balls shrank and the stack of folders lessened to one or two.  Not even Jess giving birth to two kids could slow his growth down—aside from the hockey helmet and chin strap he still wore.

Some people continued to criticize Jacob for wearing the helmet, hurting and embarrassing him deeply.  Shane’s public stance was to defend Jacob’s right to wear the helmet and chin strap, as well as point out how Jacob still tried to bang his head and punch his chin on the rare occasions the helmet and chin strap were off and actually ordered staff hold his arms to keep him safe: Wasn’t the helmet less restrictive?  The critics generally had no answer to this question but Shane’s bosses and Jacob’s guardian supported Shane’s point of view completely. The helmet and chin strap remained.

Privately, Shane sang a different tune.   When alone with Jacob on car rides, he’d occasionally broach the taboo subject of trying to remove the helmet, even if just for a matter of seconds, pointing out what a handsome man Jacob was and how he’d get girlfriends with no problem if people could just see his face.  Plus, Jacob always said he craved being normal but how could he be when he wore a hockey helmet and chin strap? Jacob didn’t enjoy these conversations, pointing out he didn’t want to wear the helmet but needed to.  As the years went on, the fuzz ball and folders disappeared completely but the helmet and chin strap remained.  Shane resigned himself to the likelihood Jacob would never feel safe enough in his home or life to shed his armor.  Wearing the helmet was the one obstacle Jacob could never overcome.

One Sunday night a few years ago, Jacob was to attend the holiday concert of a local radio station featuring the band Train when disaster seemed to strike: His chin strap wouldn’t buckle to the helmet.  Jess and Shane tried their best to fix the problem but couldn’t.  Compounding the problem was the fact the stores were all closed.  Jacob was resisting his urges to injure himself in the relatively calm environment of his home but what would happen when he was around thousands of people he didn’t know and his anxiety kicked in?  Shane figured he’d start punching his chin only this time there’d be nothing to protect it.  Jess, who was to take Jacob, disagreed, pointing out his continued safe behavior without the chin strap.  She suggested to Jacob he at least try to go without the chin strap.  Much to Shane’s surprise—and horror—Jacob agreed.

Shane waited anxiously with his smart phone by his side, figuring he’d be getting the call to meet Jess at the emergency room with a bleeding or worse Jacob.  Such a call never came, though.  When Jacob arrived home, he was beaming because Patrick Monahan, the lead singer for Train, had sought him out in the crowd to give him a high five. Jacob reasoned it was because the singer was proud of him for going to the concert without the chin strap.  Although the kindly singer had likely chosen to high five Jacob because he wore the helmet, Shane and Jess weren’t about to correct Jacob’s thought process. Suddenly, Shane had an idea: Operation Helmet Removal.

When Jacob was still flying the next morning from his encounter with Train’s singer, Shane brought up the possibility of him trying to go 10 seconds in a row with the helmet in his arms instead of on his head twice a day and then add trials as time went on.  Shane also pointed out how Jacob had made it through both a concert and the night without a chin strap so why not try to keep it going?  With great reluctance, Jacob agreed to both suggestions.

The plan was for Operation Helmet Removal to be a five year process. A few days into it, Shane jokingly placed a baseball hat on Jacob’s head during one of his 10 second sabbaticals from the helmet.  Ten minutes later, Jacob still had the hat on instead of the helmet.  By the end of the week, he was wearing the far more fashionable baseball hat instead of the helmet almost all of the time at home and, the week after that, almost all of the time at his day program too.  By Christmas, Jacob was helmet-free.  Four years later, he still is.

When asked, Jacob will admit he’s still surprised he was able to get rid of the helmet and chin strap.  He shouldn’t be, though.  He represents the very best of what a person can accomplish when they persevere against all odds. He represents the very best of people period.

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Crossing the Streams   6 comments

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The following exchange from Ghostbusters has always stuck with me when it comes to Skylar’s typically developing little sister Alyssa’s right to a separate existence when it comes to school:

 Egon Spengler (as played by the late Harold Ramis): There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.

Peter Venkman (as played by Bill Murray): What?

Spengler: Don’t cross the streams.

Venkman: Why?

Spengler: It would be bad.

Venkman: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, “bad”?

Spengler: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

As previously written about in this blog, I’ve always been a proponent of Alyssa having her own life at school without having to answer questions about why her big sister says or does certain things.  It’s not that I don’t think Alyssa can handle it—I’ve seen her educate others both young and old at a level so high that it would make the most decorated BCBAPhDMBAMDEsquire pass out in awe. I just don’t want her to have to.  That’s why I wasn’t initially delighted when my wife Jen decided Skylar (accompanied by her ABA pro and BCBA) would attend Alyssa’s school talent show last evening.  Sure, we were armed with a ridiculous amount of support but taking Skylar places even without supports has never been an issue for us—taking Skylar places without her having issues is more the problem.  While we generally don’t mind Skylar struggling in public, as it’s our job as her parents to normalize her life as much as possible, it’s also our life to do the same for Alyssa and having a big sister melting down like an infant is not normal.  Skylar attending this talent show was crossing the streams.

Egon Spengler: I have a radical idea. If the door swings both ways, we could reverse the particle flow through the gate.   

Peter Venkman: How?

Spengler: We’ll cross the streams.     

Venkman: Excuse me, Egon, you said crossing the streams was bad. You’re gonna endanger us, you’re gonna endanger our client. The nice lady who paid us in advance before she became a dog.

Spengler: Not necessarily. There’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.

Not surprisingly, Skylar did just fine during the eating portion of the evening, dining on multi-cultural cuisine and several dozen desserts without incident. But when the lights went down for the show, my heart began to race.  Alyssa had enough on her plate as a seven-year-old playing piano in front of a crowd for the first time.  A big sister melting down on top of that didn’t seem fair.

When the first group of performers took the stage, Skylar predictably dealt with her anxiety over being in a strange place mixed with the expectation she remain seated and reasonably quiet by perseverating.  Over and over again, she asked “Why did I get a break for one million minutes?” When her ABA Pro and BCBA didn’t bite, she turned to the biggest sucker she knew for affirmation: She turned to me.

Skylar wanted me to reply “because you’re cute” but I couldn’t, even as her voice began to escalate to “scene” levels.   Replying to a question from my older daughter based in perseveration and the need to script/gain attention from others is about the worst thing anyone can do if they want her to stop.  Thus, my response had to be no response at all. The problem with ignoring Skylar then and there was that it didn’t matter if a meltdown presented a learning opportunity for her to realize throwing a fit doesn’t equate to getting her own way.  What did  matter then and there was that if she melted down, all life Alyssa knew when it came to her autism-free safe haven school would stop instantaneously and every molecule in her body would explode at the speed of light.

Skylar took a break from asking me the same question to use another of her coping mechanisms—the old bathroom request. Her workers granted it and I took the opportunity to move away, as I was obviously the target.  Still, I cringed in anticipation of hearing her yelling behind me or watching leave in a tizzy while Alyssa hid her head in shame but neither of those things happened.  Two things that did happen were Alyssa kicking major ass on the piano playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “London Bridges”, and Skylar kicking major ass too—that is to say, she kicked perseveration’s ass majorly.

By the end of the show, Skylar was singing along to a young lady performing Owl City’s “Good Time” and requesting to sing “Unconditionally” by Pink in her own school talent show.  She helped herself to more food and played around other kids, including her sister. She also approached adults and asked random questions, all of which were answered patiently.  One exchange from our night will stick with me in the future when it comes to Skylar and Alyssa’s school:

            Skylar: How old are you?

            A woman: How old do you think I am?

            Skylar: Twenty-one.

           The woman (laughing) I’m a bit older but I love you for saying that!

           Skylar (in a matter of a fact tone): I love you too.

We crossed the streams and lived to tell about it.

The somewhat evil expression on Skylar's face pre-show didn't exactly give me confidence she'd do well as a spectator but she ended up having an excellent time watching her little sister play the piano

The somewhat evil expression on Skylar’s face pre-show didn’t exactly give me confidence she’d do well as a spectator but she ended up having an excellent time watching her little sister play the piano

Skylar and Seamus Steal a School Bus! (not really)   3 comments

Seamus chooses the one person he knows who will happily accompany him on a quest to steal a school bus to visit a local bakery: Skylar

My daughter Skylar is the type of magnetic kid who most adults are not only happy to receive attention from but grateful.   There have been many occasions where I’ve arrived at her school or a place where she’s receiving professional services to find BCBAs, teachers, clinicians, therapists, and other highly educated people alike doting on her with “big tickles” and fully engaging in whatever topic she’s fixated on at the time.  The same doting holds true for grown up members of the general public, who have often surrendered a cell phone or driver’s license to my daughter following just a single request or nuzzle from her. I keep waiting for this superstar treatment to end now that she’s no longer a little kid but it remains just as prevalent at age ten as it did when she was a toddler. Like many kids with autism, however, Skylar’s willingness to engage doesn’t extend to peers.  It’s in no way the fault of the kids but, rather, her brand of autism which pushes them away and leaves her, in the strict sense of the word, friendless. For her, kids speak too fast and are too unpredictable to allow her to let her guard down enough to be around them.  There are two exceptions to this in the world.  One, as previously chronicled, is her younger sister Alyssa.  The other is a boy named Seamus she’s known since the age of four.  In a world that in many ways neither child is comfortable being a part of, I believe them to be soul mates.

Skylar playing a game of Monopoly by herself. My daughter has a deep desire to play with other kids but no confidence to do so. Seamus has always been the one child besides her sister Alyssa she's felt at ease around.

Skylar setting up a game of Monopoly to play by herself. My daughter has a deep desire to play with other kids but no confidence to do so. Seamus has always been the one child besides her sister Alyssa she’s felt at ease around.

Skylar and Seamus were in the same pre-school class and hit if off immediately.  Their wonderful teacher, Miss Lisa, would tell me about how the two would often go off to a quiet corner of the room and play next to one another, neither quite capable of playing with another child at the time but finding fulfillment through the rare person they believed they could trust. I observed them to not have the exact same personality (Seamus is a lot more social with other kids than Skylar but strikes me as more guarded around adults) but, nevertheless, about as similar of one as two people within a spectrum can in terms of temperament, a love of danger, brilliance frequently disguised as nonsense, and a certain It Factor that made it impossible for anyone with a pulse not to become instantly smitten with them. Skylar, as she tends to do, revealed her feelings through song when she ran around singing “Share a Mame-us, share a Mame-us” throughout the Winter of 2008, substituting her then-pronunciation of “Seamus” for “Story” in the Sesame Street song “Share a Story”.  When the school year ended, I was saddened by the thought of them no longer being together but through fate, they both ended up at the same school for kindergarten in the district at the last-minute.  For this school, not only would serve Seamus and Skylar be brand new but kids with autism as well.

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Skylar and Seamus have a quiet, calming effect on one another that has run extremely deep since they met at the age of 4.

The school did the best it could but didn’t have the resources five years ago that it does today for kids like Skylar and Seamus, who need specialized help at times. It was a learning curve for many but the soul mates found comfort and solace in the other’s mere presence. As had been the pattern in pre-school, they rarely played or conversed with one another but together, a potentially overwhelming situation for each was somehow manageable.

Their bond continued into third grade when both hit the wall behaviorally and academically.  Skylar and Seaumus realized this and formulated their very own behavioral intervention to soothe one another during tough times by meeting at the back of the classroom to read together until everything was okay again.  Despite their deep bond, a change of scenery for both was desperately needed.    Never was this more evident  than one day when their class was short-staffed and understandably forced to simply maintain two kids who no longer fit into a mainstream educational situation.  Both chose to spend their time drawing while other kids worked on curriculum items. For Skylar, this meant an intricate, color-coded floor plan for a health club, complete with a urinal right out in the open and next to where a rack of dumbbells were to be located.  As for Seamus, his drawing detailed the mother of all elementary school heists: driving a school bus to Gerardo’s, a local bakery, with a smiling Skylar riding along (the picture is at the very top of this blog entry).

The longtime partners in crime never got to pull off their caper, as he moved to another school halfway through the school year.  The loss was significant for Skylar, as my little girl who seemed to crave solitude was, all of a sudden, truly alone in her mind for the first time ever at school.  Her lip would quiver at the mere mention of Seamus and the only way to cheer her up was to joke about them stealing a school bus and going to Gerardo’s.  Several weeks went by until a St. Patrick’s Day assignment, of all things, brought her some closure.

The front of our Team Skylar t-shirt from a run/walk to benefit a local autism resource center last year was inspired by a certain soul mate of hers.

The front of our Team Skylar t-shirt from a run/walk to benefit a local autism resource center last year was inspired by a certain soul mate of hers.

The kids in Skylar’s class were given the task of writing about an Irish legend.  Seeing a potato in our refrigerator sparked something within her. Combining her imagination, heart, and the projection of some Only Skylar autobiographical details, my daughter penned the following:

Famous Seamus was a potato who loved to swim in the pool at the YMCA. He also loved to use floaties and splash the lifeguards. One day, the lifeguard told Famous Seamus he couldn’t swim at the Y anymore because he splashed her. Famous Seamus was sad.

Famous Seamus needed a new way to exercise. He started to walk. He didn’t like it at first because it was too slippery. Then he got to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade because he was Irish. He didn’t like walking in the parade, either, until he heard the songs “Don’t Wake Me Up” and “This Girl Is On Fire” playing. This made Famous Seamus happy. He now loved to walk.

Famous Seamus wanted to walk on Team Skylar. He practiced by walking on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays to the college. Famous Seamus started walking faster and faster until he was ready to walk at the autism walk.

He was calm on the day of the walk. His friend Skylar asked him if he wanted to walk and he said, “yes, no, maybe.” But then the directional came on a car that was parked and he changed his answer to “yes.”

Famous Seamus had fun at the walk. He was there for five hours. He can’t wait to be on Team Skylar again next year. He is proud to be the only potato to ever walk. This makes him a legend.

The creation of Famous Seamus provided Skylar a sense of closure when her soul mate went to another school and perhaps introduced the concept of Potato Therapy to the world, as well.

The creation of Famous Seamus provided Skylar a sense of closure when he left to attend another school and perhaps introduced the concept of Potato Therapy to the world, as well.

Skylar and her Mom decorated the potato to create arguably the most fetching root vegetable to ever walk this or any other planet. Speaking of other planets, the two friends who often seem to have a great inner-life going on driven by a galaxy far, far away, have stayed in contact. They see one another practically every Sunday at church and have gotten together not to play but, nevertheless, feel contented in one another’s presence a few times. Plans exist for them to go out to dinner at Texas Roadhouse but such a pedestrian undertaking still pales in comparison to Seamus’ Gerardo’s scheme. This became clear last summer when I had the audacity to ask Skylar if she wanted to stop for a cookie at Gerardo’s. “No,” she snapped angrily. “I want to go to Gerardo’s with Seamus on a school bus on May twenty-third two-thousand-sixteen, not you!” Part of me wonders if Seamus would throw out the same seemingly random date if asked about their proposed adventure. They do, after all, speak the same unique language of soul mates.

 

Skylar and Seamus in Rocking Chair

Posted February 3, 2014 by seandal in Autism, friendship, special needs

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Grounded   2 comments

Skylar Chart

One of the following things is not like the others…or so it seems.

  • A good report card
  • Making a sports team
  • Praise for high character from a teacher or Principal
  • A significant amount of friends
  • A flat chart

The first four things listed are all common sources of pride and causes for celebration for parents when it comes to their child and school. The final thing, while appearing atypical to most, was definitely a source of pride and cause for celebration for me when it was sent home yesterday.  We often associate soaring as a positive when it comes to matters of education but when it comes to that chart, Skylar, and me, it turns out that grounded is the key to success.

As evidenced by the soaring dots of 2012-2013, grounded has not always been the case for Skylar at school and my soaring denial was to blame.  It all goes back to her IEP meeting at the end of her second year of kindergarten (Yes, she required not one but two years of notoriously rigorous kindergarten.  Such a thing would be a red flag to most but, as you might have guessed, this isn’t a blog entry where I’m going to come off terribly wise.)  The meeting was led by a TEAM Chair who, like most (not all!) TEAM Chairs I’ve encountered, didn’t exactly give off the vibe she had my child’s best interests at heart.  When I raised the possibility of Skylar being placed full-time into a full inclusion classroom for first grade, she emphatically shot me down.  I rolled my eyes on the inside, as I felt her point of view had more to do with the school district not wanting to potentially hire a 1:1 down the road to keep Skylar in the least restrictive setting possible than an informed opinion but, informed or not, her opinion was consistent with past TEAM Chairs and the district as a whole.  Plus, what could I really do if the rest of the TEAM agreed? That’s when something interesting occurred: the rest of the TEAM didn’t agree and stated, on the record, Skylar could handle full inclusion in first grade.  Wow!   My pride soared, even as I failed to grasp the in first grade portion of their statement and substituted it with forever.

The TEAM Chair continued to protest.  She comically kept getting up to leave the room and make phone calls only to come back with different compromise offers all designed to keep my daughter out of full inclusion.  I replied emphatically each time that I would only sign an IEP placing Skylar in a full inclusion setting, where access to typically developing peer role models and the true curriculum awaited.  The rest of the TEAM backed me completely and it turned out spectacular…in first grade.

First grade was a dream year for my daughter.  Her teacher, para, and classmates were all amazing and she thrived both behaviorally and academically, even without the 1:1.  I sat at her IEP at the end of that school year giving the TEAM Chair the middle finger on the inside and barely listening to warnings from the educators and therapists I so liked and trusted about how the abstract nature of the material in second grade may be too much for Skylar and it could manifest itself in negative behaviors so why not pull back at least a little with the full inclusion to start second grade and consider additional staffing if necessary?  I watched the TEAM Chair stare daggers at the teachers and therapists but I wasn’t processing the actual reason why because I was stuck on the whole pull back on full inclusion portion of the conversation.  What?  No way!  Seriously, the kid had two errors on spelling tests all year in first grade but second grade was suddenly going to be some big problem?  Jeesh.  Two spelling errors in a single school year. Was that a record of some type? It had to be.  She was college-bound! Sure, she had little to no idea what any of those words she spelled correctly actually meant but still—two wrong all year! I was so busy soaring that I failed to read between the lines that maybe it was time for me to push for the 1:1.

Grade two didn’t start out as dreamy unless you categorize nightmares as dreams. I began getting notes in Skylar’s communication log about her aggressing towards the para but I didn’t panic.  Sure, Skylar had never been violent before but it was a new para and she was obviously just testing.  I figured her negative behaviors would stop soaring.  I was wrong, as they worsened to such an extent the classroom teacher bravely and heroically put her neck on the line at an emergency TEAM meeting and stated flat-out Skylar could possibly handle full inclusion in second grade but only with a 1:1 staff person. The school district, to its credit, didn’t (at least openly) dispute this and a 1:1 was hired for my daughter. Surely, this would prove the fix.  Wrong again.

At Skylar IEP, the TEAM suggested partial pullout with the 1:1 accompanying her at all times would be best for her headed into third grade but I rejected the notion. How was she going to get into college unless she was pushed the same as other kids in her grade?  If the difficulty of the work or expectation she remain on-task was stressing her out, I was sorry to hear it but there were behavioral interventions yet to be tried that could help with that, especially with a new school BCBA we liked on board.  Third grade would be better.

It wasn’t. Academic progress was largely non-existent but Skylar’s aggressions soared to the point of being felonious assaults towards her poor 1:1.  I felt bad, of course, but I reasoned dealing with such things was the 1:1’s job and if she wasn’t suited for it, they could transfer her to another child and find one who was.  I remained idiotically closed off to the notion Skylar couldn’t handle full inclusion until I began getting reports kids were crying because she was scaring them. Suddenly, a ton of bricks landed on the wall that had been blocking my sense of reason.

My daughter had always been loved, accepted, and included by kids and parents alike at her school but her newfound (in retrospect, only “newfound” to me) volatility was putting that at-risk. Plus, I loved those kids and the last thing I wanted was for Skylar to make school a terrible experience for them.  I finally conceded full inclusion may not be the place for my daughter after all and requested to move her to a sub-separate classroom setting for half of the day. But it was too late. The overcrowded school no longer had the physical space necessary for such a classroom, necessitating a move to a different school within the district to meet her needs. Had I been more open-minded prior the third grade and actually put aside my disdain for bureaucrats and foolish pride that  my daughter with autism could do the impossible and instead listened to what people who I respected we saying about my daughter, maybe such a classroom would still exist. I had blown it for my little girl.

I hated the idea of Skylar going to a different school. She was already socially inept and introducing her one-of-a-kind act to a bunch of kids who hadn’t known and accepted her since kindergarten (years one and two, no less) potentially doomed her to ridicule and loneliness instead of tolerance and acceptance. What had I done?  I was incredibly guilty over my screw up and what do I do when I’m incredibly guilty over a screw up?  I read.  Yup, it was really time to soar!

I headed straight to Amazon’s website. Was it to order some type of psychology book for myself to get to the bottom of why I’m such a moron? No, it was to purchase a book about homeschooling a child with autism.  Actually, since it was an idea that was 2x the awesome, I bought two books about homeschooling a child with autism. Sure, I didn’t have the patience with Skylar to teach her to zipper her coat but what possibly could go wrong?  Fortunately, my reclusive sense of reason again made an appearance and I never found out.  As awful as it would be for Skylar, a new school in the district was the only realistic solution and, when that inevitably failed, I’d fight for an out of district placement (even though I’ve never wanted her outplaced).  Yes, once again, I was viewing my little girl as more prop than a person.

I was one signature away from my master plan beginning when my logic finally became grounded enough to allow me to think effectively outside the box.  I loved the new BCBA and she had great ideas she’d put into place for the smaller kids with autism entering the school while most of the older kids with autism with behavioral needs had been sent elsewhere. But why couldn’t the remaining ones like Skylar stay?  Space?  That seemed an easy fix.  I knew a new Principal would be hired the following year. I had no problem with the old Principal, mind you, but maybe the new one could have direct experience at a program for kids with autism and know how to fight to get resources? If Skylar could just get through third grade, there was the potential to keep her where she belonged and meet her educational needs.

It was time to put my advocacy skills to use for something productive for the first time in a few years.  With the help of two other groups of parents, my wife Jen and I pushed hard with the district to provide the BCBA what she needed both for the present and future.  I then assured Skylar’s phenomenally  patient  classroom teacher that I couldn’t have cared less what my daughter did or didn’t do academically the rest of the school year and would sign anything I needed to sign to take the pressure off of everyone. Finally, I made a point of apologizing in advance to the parents of the kids in her class for my daughter’s behavior but their responses were almost universal: we love Skylar and we want her to stay.

Stay she did. She and everyone else survived the rest of third grade.  The school hired a principal with a background educating kids with autism, a special education teacher with the same profile, and found space to create a sub-separate classroom for her and other older students with autism who needed it.  Skylar is still included with her typically developing peers during fun things like recess, lunch, and special classes like music but is able to retreat to a quieter, less pressurized setting for academics. My modest aspiration for her entering fourth grade was to simply decrease her negative behaviors but, as that’s occurred, her schoolwork has steadily improved.  I am overjoyed.

I realize Skylar’s story when it comes to school is far from finished and there will be bumps and dips—both good and bad— along the way but I will never again rise or fall with them.  I am grounded.

 

Diamond Is the Sky now has a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/#!/diamondisthesky

Posted January 30, 2014 by seandal in Autism, parenting, special needs

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The Person I Admire Most In the World   4 comments

Alyssa and Skylar sleeping

For many parents of people with special needs, our number one fear in life is what will happen to our child when we die.  I’ve even heard some special needs parents say there are times they almost hope to outlive their child.  It seems incredibly backwards and wrong but I absolutely understand this mentality.  What will become of our vulnerable kids when they’re no longer young and we’re no longer around to protect them?  To many of us, it’s a mystery just as foreboding as death itself.  The natural coping mechanism is to take solace in the existence of our typically developing children like my daughter Alyssa.

Solace is fine but actual expectations are not.  Just because somebody like me or my wife Jen is the parent of a child with special needs doesn’t mean the world owes us anything. Our typically developing kids don’t, either. I had this epiphany roughly ten seconds into Alyssa’s life. After thanking God she was healthy, I then thanked God she was a girl. Why?  A girl, I generalized, was more likely to care for a sibling with autism like my older daughter Skylar than a boy would be. As I listened to my tiny newborn daughter cry, it suddenly struck me just how vile my previous thought was. Alyssa was a human being in her own right, not a pre-destined savior for somebody else. I made a promise to myself from thereon I would never put any pressure on her to be anything but the best person she could be.  And I’ve sincerely done my very best to keep this promise but have often felt as though I’ve failed her. Oddly enough, her general awesomeness towards her big sister and autism matters in general have been the source of my angst.

I think Alyssa's outgoing, truthfully often loud nature makes her benevolence towards her sister and other kids with autism more effective because so many eyes are generally on her.

I think Alyssa’s outgoing, truthfully often loud nature makes her benevolence towards her sister and other kids with autism more effective because so many eyes are generally on her.

Two stories, in particular, stand out.  It’s because Alyssa not only displayed great compassion for people with autism but led the way for others to do so, as well.  The first was in pre-school a few years back. Alyssa, not yet four, was in a class with about a dozen other kids, including one who clearly had some issues setting him apart from everyone else.  My younger daughter, who developed radar for such things from the time she could put two words together, immediately recognized the source of these issues and expressed her concern to me. “Poor lil’ ossism boy, Daddy.  He doesn’t wanna play with anyone and nobody wants to play with him but I pat his head and say ‘it’s okay, lil’ ossism boy.’  I tell my friends they should play with him, too.”

I was blown away for a number of reasons, not all positive, but decided to assist her in her quest to befriend this child and set an example for others to do so. It wasn’t too difficult because I had the real world example of Skylar to draw from. “I don’t think it’s that he doesn’t want to play with anyone,” I replied. “I think he’s not yet comfortable playing with people he doesn’t know. Maybe you could just give him a moment of your time every day and play near him?  Maybe he’ll come to you when he’s ready if you do this enough? Maybe your friends will see this and try to do the same thing? It would probably work better than you telling them they should do it.  Also, try not to call him ‘lil ossism boy’.  He probably feels different enough already.”

“Okay, Daddy,” my younger daughter shot back.  About a week later, I arrived at her school a bit early for pickup and saw that not just Alyssa but several other kids from the class were playing near the kid she had been concerned about.   It wasn’t a stretch to assume my little girl had something to do with this welcome development. My overwhelming pride, however, was mixed with sadness.  Alyssa should just be a pre-school student, dammit, not a play therapist.  Why did I advise her like I had?  Had I put pressure on her?  I may have broken my promise to myself.

Skylar and Alyssa just hanging out

Skylar and Alyssa just hanging out

My second story is from last spring. About nine months ago, Alyssa (who attends a different public school from her big sister to better insure having her own existence) was playing with some classmates at a playground when Skylar and I arrived to pick her up.  My younger daughter, who loves to work a crowd for laughs, decided it would be funny to whisper bathroom terms into Skylar’s ear along with the command she repeat the words for her friends.  Skylar did as requested, causing everyone present to laugh hysterically.  I wasn’t happy but decided not to embarrass Alyssa on the spot.  After all, she was generally a great sister and, as a kid, had the right to screw up every now and then.  I did talk to her later, though.

“Alyssa, you know it wasn’t right to script Skylar to say those things, don’t you? She trusts you more than anyone in the world and you took advantage of that.”

Alyssa’s lip began to quiver. “I was just joking, Dad. We were just laughing at the jokes.  Skylar was laughing, too.”

“You were all laughing at her—not with her—and you made her the joke, Alyssa.  Please don’t do it again.”

Alyssa began to cry and I felt awful. I didn’t feel that I was wrong in what I’d said, mind you, but that was small comfort in the moment.  She didn’t deserve to be lectured so heavily, especially since I would have done the same thing when I was six years old. Had I again broken my promise to myself?

Early this fall, Skylar and I returned to the playground.  Once again, there was a crowd of kids. “Alyssa, tell her to say ‘poop’,” one of them bellowed, causing the other kids to laugh.

Alyssa wasn’t among them, though. “That’s making fun of her,” she snapped, getting in the offending party’s face.  “Don’t do it again!”  A few seconds later, nobody else was laughing, either.  Yet again, I was both incredibly proud and mortified.  It was wonderful for Alyssa to stick up for her sister but what had I done in making her feel she had to do so?

It's best not to mess with Skylar when her little sister is around

It’s best not to mess with Skylar when her little sister is around

A few weeks later, over thirty little girls came to our house for Alyssa’s birthday party, including the one who’d requested Skylar say “poop.”  They played like maniacs, stopping only to work on craft projects like the bags many of them were designing to take home. Skylar, as she’s apt to do, misplaced her bag and began to throw a fit.   The kids present who knew Skylar weren’t too fazed and knew to ignore her. The ones who didn’t know her, however, were understandably thrown off to see such rage over something so minor and wide-eyed whispering ensued. This was the exact reason I try to keep some separation between Skylar and Alyssa’s lives.  Why should Alyssa have to feel embarrassed?

My wallowing was interrupted by the child who requested Skylar say ‘poop’ emerging with the missing bag. “Here you go, Skylar,” she said. “I looked all around and found it.  It’s okay.” I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.  Not only had this particular young lady learned from her mistake to empathize with Skylar, my Alyssa had been the teacher!

Alyssa has shown a knack in her brief life to not only lead Skylar but others, as well, when it comes to matters of autism

Alyssa has shown a knack in her brief life to not only lead Skylar but others, as well, when it comes to matters of autism

When I praised my younger daughter the next day for being such a great role model, she had a response that warmed my heart/troubled me deeply. “Of course, Dad. Skylar’s my best friend and always will be.”

“Don’t say that,” I moaned.  “I mean, that’s great for her, Alyssa, but she can’t give back like you deserve. Be a good sister but you don’t have to be her best friend.”

She glared at me. “Are you saying she can’t be my best friend? That’s not up to you, Dad.”

It was time for another epiphany.  Sure, I had no right to tell her she had to feel responsible for Skylar in any way or devote part of her life to her big sister but I also had no right to tell her she couldn’t. Maybe being Skylar’s best friend/savior was just who Alyssa was and, more importantly, wanted to be.  I realized I’d better back down real fast. “You’re right, Alyssa.  You can be whoever you want.”

Note: I’m now on Facebook. Please visit and like my page at www.facebook.com/diamondisthesky

Alyssa launched "Little Lissy Loom" for a period last fall to make and sell loom bracelets then give the money to charities important to her. It has sometimes bothered me why a kid so little would feel compelled to be so giving rather than just a little kid but I've come to accept that's who Alyssa is.

Alyssa launched “Little Lissy Loom” for a period last fall to make and sell loom bracelets then give the money to charities important to her. It has sometimes bothered me why a kid so little would feel compelled to be so giving rather than just a little kid but I’ve come to accept that’s who Alyssa is.

Diamond Is the Sky now has a Facebook page   2 comments

Skylar Driving

I’m excited to say this blog now has a page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/diamondisthesky! Please like and visit, as I will share smaller stories about Skylar on the Diamond Is the Sky Facebook page, as well as keep everyone notified of upcoming posts and other news.

Posted January 21, 2014 by seandal in Autism, Facebook, special needs

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Deinstitutionalization and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   3 comments

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in bringing about massive social change extends well beyond his accomplishments in securing civil rights for African-Americans.  Not too long ago, it was the norm for people like my daughter Skylar to be sent to what were known as state schools.  These places weren’t actually “schools” but extremely overcrowded, taxpayer-funded warehouses that stockpiled people with special needs while providing little to no therapeutic or educational activity but plenty of squalor, violence, and sexual assaults for them to endure. Staff-to-student ratios were sometimes as high as 1:40 and as many as thirty kids would be crammed into one room.  Human waste filled the hallways and only the strongest and/or most fortunate ate with regularity.  Civil rights?  Human beings in state schools weren’t even treated as human. It wasn’t until Dr. King’s struggles during the Nineteen Sixties provoked national dialogue about equality for all citizens and changed the hearts and minds of millions that the road was paved for another, lesser known movement which took place in the Nineteen Seventies: the deinstitutionalization of people with special needs.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. positively impacted the lives of millions of people, including those with special needs.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. positively impacted the lives of millions of people, including those of people with special needs and their families.

There are books and websites that can educate anyone interested in what took place inside state schools. For this blog, I will share the stories of three amazing people I know who survived them.  The first is of a feisty, engaging man named Doug.  Doug had Down syndrome. He’d been born prematurely in the Nineteen Thirties and was so underweight that doctors simply threw their hands in the air and sent him home with his mother to die.  But it didn’t happen.  Against all odds, Doug’s mother nursed him to health with an eye dropper.  To her, Doug was a miracle but, to me, his survival was more about a great mother’s will than divine intervention.

When Doug reached school age, doctors and education administrators alike strongly suggested his mother send him to a state school to live so he could be “properly cared for.”  It’s easy for us now to question why parent would even consider doing such a thing but, back then, practically every parent of a kid with special needs chose that route. Plus, she figured, who was she to ignore the advice of experts?  Again, very few people in her position did.  She loved her son with all her heart and only wanted what was best for him so she agreed to send him away. Of course, like the majority of those other parents, she had no idea of the horrors awaiting her child.

Doug’s smallish stature and innocent nature made him a prime candidate to be victim to any variety of assaults by predatory staff persons and/or other students with special needs who’d become products of their hideous environment.  But it didn’t happen.  Against all odds, Doug was eventually discharged relatively unscathed during the deinstitutionalization movement.  For the second time in his life, though, his survival wasn’t due to a miracle but the will of an incredible person who loved him.  In this case, the person was Charlie, a then-young man about ten years older than Doug who’d been institutionalized around the same time.

Charlie was sent to the state school after stealing a car, an act chalked up by the experts to his need to be institutionalized.  While this was tragic for Charlie, who likely had an IQ well above the threshold for mental retardation, it proved to be a lifesaver for Doug.  Charlie protected Doug from being brutalized like he was his brother.  Unfortunately, I can’t say that Charlie was as fortunate as his little buddy in regard to being shielded from abuse inside the state school.  His haunting silence beyond an occasional polite “yes” or “no” towards anyone who wasn’t Doug and faraway stare told a story that probably indicated otherwise.

Life inside of state schools for people with special needs was not pretty.

Life inside of state schools for people with special needs was not pretty.

Doug and Charlie both passed away over fifteen years ago.  Doug led what felt like a fairly happy existence after being discharged, moving into a supportive group home with people who cared deeply about him and visiting his mother on weekends even as she neared the age of ninety.   I don’t know how Charlie’s life went because he was so guarded.  I do believe, on balance, his existence was an extraordinary one because he saved Doug.

                 Allowing and/or committing rapes, beatings, starvation, and the spread of diseases weren’t the only atrocities perpetrated by those entrusted to care for the lives of people with special needs in the decades leading up to deinstitutionalization. Bob (previously written about here http://www.autismresourcecentral.org/What-We-Offer/Online-Community/blog/my-friend-bob) endured a different type of inhumane treatment after being sent to a state school at the age of seven for being “a slow learner.”

“They asked me to join the Science Club but we never did any experiments, we just ate oatmeal,” he recalls.  This was because Bob and his fellow students were the experiment.  “They put radon in the oatmeal and fed it to us to see what would happen.”  Fortunately, Bob didn’t suffer many health effects but his best friend Walter, who was also victimized, wasn’t as lucky. “The poor guy was always sick until the day he died,” Bob remembers.

Walter passed away before the deinstitutionalization movement took place but Bob, after years of terrible residential placements, has finally found peace late in life with a provider he admiringly calls “The Boss.”  His days are filled performing volunteer activities mostly agreeable to him with friends at his day hab while juggling a number of female admirers throughout Central Massachusetts.  He even has a cellphone that he won’t put my name into because I am, after all, male.

Bob survived years in a state school to not only thrive late in life but to also provide a lesson to people everywhere of how to be cool.

Bob survived years in a state school to not only thrive late in life but to also provide a lesson to people everywhere of how to be cool.

I would never suggest Bob, Doug, Charlie, or anyone else was lucky Dr. King came along when he did because nobody forced to spend a significant part of their life in what amounted to Hell can be considered lucky in any way, shape, or form. But Dr. King’s sacrifices, vision, and leadership sparked the movement which ultimately freed people with special needs who were confined to state schools a lot sooner than it would have otherwise and, for that, I thank him. And I also thank Doug, Charlie, Bob, and everyone else forced to endure what they did for persevering.  Your bravery allowed people like my daughter the chance to lead a normal, productive life filled with love and free from abuse years later.  Like Dr. King you, too, are true American heroes.

Skylar 2012 Book 21

Posted January 20, 2014 by seandal in Autism, MLK, special needs

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